|John Fitzgerald (top) and Mats Wilander
Stockholm: A respectful rivalry dating back 20 years will hang in the air between Swedish Davis Cup captain Mats Wilander and his Australian counterpart John Fitzgerald this weekend.
In 1983, Wilander and Fitzgerald faced each other across the net in the Davis Cup final.
Wilander won that singles encounter, and his rubber against Pat Cash, but his friend Joakim Nystrom, now Sweden’s assistant captain, lost both his matches.
Sweden’s doubles pair of Anders Jarryd and Hans Simonsson also lost and the Cup went to Australia.
Both teams, which meet in a quarter-final tie in Malmo from Friday to Sunday, have a strong tradition in Davis Cup. Australia have taken the trophy 27 times in a record stretching back nearly a century.
Sweden first won it in 1975 and have won another six finals since, three of them with Wilander.
Wilander was on a two-month sabbatical from professional tennis when Australia and Sweden met for the second time in the final, in 1986 in Melbourne. The Australians again won 3-2.
“We almost feel like we have more in common with this team than any other country in Davis Cup,” Fitzgerald said this week.
“We think we approach it the same way that they do. They are very team-orientated and they have a great culture and history.”
The two teams last met in the Davis Cup in 2001 when world No. 1 Lleyton Hewitt and the now-retired Patrick Rafter saw Australia through 4-1 in the semi-finals.
Although Sweden have lost six of their previous eight Davis Cup encounters with Australia, Wilander has expressed great optimism ahead of the Malmo tie, dubbing it a “classic” where Sweden have a 50-50 chance.
Fitzgerald concurred, saying: “We’re very wary of the Swedes. They tend to rise to the occasion.”
But portents seem to be against Sweden as last year’s Australian Open champion Thomas Johansson is out with a knee injury and Magnus Norman, the French Open 2000 finalist, is struggling to get back to form after two years plagued by injuries.
Thomas Enqvist has come back from a shoulder injury and has won only four matches this year, although he did beat Andre Agassi in Scottsdale early March.
Andreas Vinciguerra, who won the final singles rubber in Sweden’s dramatic 3-2 win over Brazil in the first round, is out with a knee injury.
His replacement, the 21-year-old Joachim Johansson whose girlfriend is Hewitt’s sister Jaslyn, has yet to play a Davis Cup match and has made little impact on the ATP Tour.
Australia are spearheaded by Hewitt and their squad also includes Mark Philippoussis, who has shown impressive form recently reaching the final in Scottsdale and beating Enqvist in Miami.
“His highest level is very high and when he reaches it he is lethal to all players.
But his lowest level is low,” Wilander said of Philippoussis, who is known for his inconsistent results.
The tie is likely to feature a showdown between two of the world’s best doubles players, Todd Woodbridge and Jonas Bjorkman.
The two are much more accustomed to playing together than against each other.
As a doubles pair, they won the Australian Open in 2001 and Wimbledon last year when they also finished second in the ATP Team Race.
“It’s quite a tough situation because I know how he thinks and he knows how I think,” Bjorkman said.
“It’s easy to get paralysed against a player you’ve discussed the game with so much, it’s almost like playing another Swede.”
Woodbridge won their last Davis Cup encounter in the semi-finals two years ago, alongside Wayne Arthurs.
“We are optimistic but realistic,” said Bjorkman, who will be paired with either Enqvist or Norman at the weekend.